It seemed that no sooner had our heads touched the pillows than the alarm started ringing, signaling the impossibly early start to the next day. It was tempting to hit the snooze button a half dozen times, but the problem, as previously alluded to, is that when you’re doing touristy things in Kyoto in the prime Autumn season, you need to get your butt in gear early, if you want to get into anywhere without having to stand in a line for 2 hours, let alone if you are even entertaining the notion of trying to snatch up a parking space.
And so, about 25 minutes later at the bright and bleary eyed still-kinda-dark hour of 5:25 in the AM, we found ourselves pushing an old lady out of the way to park our car in the last – the last parking spot in a massive lot near Tofukuji temple. Seriously, the lot was practically full by 5:20 AM (oh as an added bonus, we had to queue to even get in to the parking lot!). Japanese tourists don’t mess around on vacation, man.
Anyway, as has been my custom so far in this series, rather than bore you with the regurgitated history and significance of Tofukuji, I will instead direct you to just click the wikipedia link above and read all about it to your heart’s content. Besides, we weren’t interested in all that cultural nonsense – we were there because Tofukuji is supposed to be one of the most beautiful spots in Kyoto to view autumn leaves, especially from its the promenade on the Tsuten-bashi bridge, and goddammit, we wanted to see some autumn leaves.
By this point it was not even 6AM yet and still there was a massive queue of people waiting to get into to Tofukuji. Seriously, the line wound up and down, up and around, folding in and on itself and possibly space time as well. You would think we were lining up to see Ayumi Hamasaki perform or something. (not that I would queue up for that, mind you).
As we drew closer to the entrance, we spied the cause for the massive traffic jam. As mentioned above, Tofukuji has a particular promenade that is a “famous spot” to view autumn leaves from. And by “famous spot” I mean, it appears in all the tourism magazines (whether it appears in them because it’s famous, or it’s famous because it appears in them is a conundrum mankind will never know, and something I wonder about a lot of the “attractions “featured” in Japanese tourism magazines. But I digress…). And in Japan, if something appears in a tourism magazine, then it’s a safe bet that everyone and their mothers will want to visit it/buy it/eat it and/or photograph it. And so it was with the promenade on the Tsutenbashi. Standing a few meters in front of us, shoving and seething and ebbing and undulating, was quite possibly the densest concentration of humanity I had ever seen in my life.
At this point, I should briefly explain how this promenade was constructed. Between the entrance and the rest of the temple is a large, deep valley. Spanning this valley high high up above is a long wooden covered bridge built who knows how many years ago. And jutting out from this creaky wooden span is our aforementioned promenade, also made of wood, and also jutting up a seemingly impossibly high distance up in the sky above the valley below.
Of course, none of this was immediately visible to us when we approached the promenade from the entrance, so groaning slightly at the thought of elbowing our way through the impossibly thick mass of humanity, we resolved to take the obligatory picture of the autumn leaves from the promenade as our tourist book recommended, and taking a deep breath, we plunged in.
About a third of the way in, I began to worry about the safety of my camera gear, so intense was the crush of people. I hoisted my camera (with my most expensive lens attached) up above the sea bodies and limbs and prayed to god that the constant jostling pressure of people around me wouldn’t crush the other two lens I had tucked in my padded camera bag slung around my shoulder. Behind me, I could feel Starbucks girl struggling to move her purse up above her head so it wouldn’t be crushed either.
About 2/3rds of the way in, with the edge of the promenade – our ostensible target – just in sight, I began to worry less about my camera, and more about just simply breathing…! Rather than slackening as we approached the promenade, the pressing piles of people began to increase even more, and my ribs started to hurt from the constant force of having to inhale whilst simultaneously pushing back against the 12 atmospheres equivalent of people smashing up against me. I craned my head backward to see if Starbucks girl was still hanging in there (turning around was out of the question), and found her staring back at me with glassy eyes, lips turning slightly blue and breath coming in ragged breaths, looking very much like a hamster caught in a vice of pressed humanity.
“Umm, just hang in there. We’re almost to the edge.” I mouthed to her in silent encouragement. She simply stared dully at me in response.
After a few more minutes of desperate struggling, we finally managed to arrive at the edge of the promenade. But our momentary elation at having achieved our goal was immediately replaced with another emotion – the overwhelming alkaline panic that floods your system when you realise you’re in a situation where you are very quite possibly About To Die A Horrible Death.
See, once we reached the edge of the promenade, we immediately understood a few things:
- This promenade is jutting out over a rocky valley far far below. (this was the first time we realised this)
- This promenade was made of wood, and creaking disturbingly from the 10 million people standing simultaneously atop of it.
- That while there was a “safety rail” at the edge to prevent people from toppling over, it was also made of wood, also creaking ominously and also low enough that if one was pushed from behind, one could easily topple over the top.
- Remember all those people (including ourselves, moments ago) pushing forward to try to get to the promenade? Well, turns out they still are pushing forward, only this time, we’re at the end they’re pushing towards, with nothing but a wooden rail and a long, terrible fall to a horrible rocky death behind us…!
- We probably should have though this idea through more carefully.
After this miniature epiphany of sorts – and amidst images of our broken bodies laying in the rocky valley below flashing through our minds – we quickly made the decision to take a picture for our troubles, then get out of this rather dangerous situation as fast as humanely possible. We unfortunately, failed at both of these resolutions. The first was foiled by the constant press of people jostling and squishing towards us from the back, jamming us up against the single creaking rail and literally (in my case) pushing the top half of me over the rail, as I struggled to hold on to a vertical supporting column with my left hand and not drop my camera into the valley below with my right. With all this movement, it was basically impossible to even look through the camera or hold it still, let alone snap a photo.
The second part of our little plan was confounded by a massive, sweaty, smelly brute of a man in this idiotic green nylon parka who kept pushing and violently jarring his way forward from behind us. This caught me a little bit by surprise because if there was ever a stereotype of the Japanese that is true, it’s that by and large they are a very, very polite people. Polite in the way that people queue up in an orderly fashion, wait their turns, don’t usually get pissed off even when jammed like sardines in a can on their morning and evening train commutes, etc. It’s not like back home where almost anything can turn into a confrontation filled with swearing, fisticuffs and possibly a “cap” or two being “busted” into someone’s “dome”. Now I’m not saying that everyone in Japan is polite, because of course that would be ridiculous (and for living proof of that we need look no further than that fucking old bastard of man from my infamous bumper saga), but by and large it’s a polite country and I like that and I think people all over the world should try and be politer.
Anyway, this hulking brute of a (Japanese) man apparently did not get the memo about being polite, as he was doing his damndest to shove everyone out of his way (like, literally shove…!) so he could take a picture (he was loaded down with enough photographic gear in vests and strapped duffle bags and rucksacks and stuff to shoot an entire issue of National Geographic in one go) of the stupid autumn leaves.
The thing here is that I am not a small panda. I may not be all that big, but still by Japanese standards, I’m quite large. But this man was shoving me forcefully enough that I was actually being moved against my will – in this case, against and nearly over the rail on the edge to the death valley below. And not just me – Starbucks girl and this elderly couple next to us – he was shoving all of us forcefully and without regard and in such a fashion that we were actually really worried about falling over. Because this man, gentle readers, was an asshole.
Not only were we shocked at his brazen aggressiveness – disturbingly out of place given the general placid nature of Japanese tourists alluded to above – even in a crowd – we were also really worried because we were trying to get back away from the edge and this man was not letting us (because he would have had to step back in order for us to work our way around him to get away, and he was all about moving forward and never yielding so much as an inch). This guy was an asshole, and he was a big asshole, which is the worst kind, simply because of their size and ability to impose their will on others physically. Oh, and did I mention he smelled?
We tried our best to worm our way around him and finally, finally, after some ducking, bobbing and weaving as if we were fighting Mike Tyson, we managed to slip under one of his shoulders and spying a crack opening up in the sea of people for just a second, made a beeline for the exit, leaving the old couple beside us to their fate at the hands of the sweaty brute. Classy? Probably not, but hey, they were old. They had their chance at a long and fulfilling life already, ya know?
Anyway, once we escaped from the promenade of death, the rest of Tofukuji was fine. There were indeed some beautiful leaves (though I didn’t get as many nice shots of them as I would have liked) and it was quite a nice place to visit and walk around in. So if you’re ever looking for a nice place to see the Autumn leaves in Kyoto, I recommend it (so long as you skip the Promenade of Death.
After we finished up with Tofukuji and had a quick snack to recover our energy, we decided to move on to our next major itinerary for the day, the venerable Fushimi Inari shrine. We weren’t sure where exactly it was relative to Tofukuji, but we suspected it was in the area, so when we spied an elderly police officer, we decided to ask him.
“Excuse us sir, but could you tell us where Fushimi Inari is?”
“Oh yes, just walk straight up this road for a little while. It will be on your right.
“So it’s within walking distance?”
“Oh yes, you can walk there. You can’t miss it.”
Well. Here is a lesson I would like to share with you gentle readers, and that is that just because someone tells you that you can walk somewhere does not necessarily mean it is within walking distance. I mean, you can technically walk from Portugal to Mongolia, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a) “within walking distance” and b) a “good idea”. I guess it was our fault for not asking how long it would take to walk, but I guess that’s a lesson we won’t soon forget. Anyway, so about 40 minutes later, we finally manage to limp our way to a large intersection.
“Hey look! There’s a train station right here called ‘Fushimi Inari Station’! We must be here!” I venture, semi-optomistically
“Yeah…” Starbucks girl agrees as she peers carefully at the train line map, “… and looks like it connects to a train station that appears to be directly next to Tofukuji….”
Would of been nice for the police officer to have mentioned that there turns our 40 minute sojourn would have taken all of 4 minutes by train.
Anyway, trying to be “the glass is half full” type of people, we decide not to dwell on our exhaustion and instead focus on the fact that we are finally here.
Fushimi Inari is – in my opinion – one of the more beautiful temples in Kyoto, but that may be because I like torii – the red wooden gates that you find in front of temples all over Japan. See (and if you want to know more, go ahead and click the link above to read about Fushimi Inari on wikipedia), Fushimi Inari has lots of torii gates – thousands and thousands of them, winding their way up a beautifully wooded mountain. It’s a nice place to visit on a sunny Autumn day, with the cool breeze and the interplay of shadows and sunlight trickling through and forming a myriad of moire patterns in the tunnels of torii gates.
Of course, this being modern Japan, things are not always as they appear. While at first glance these torii might seem to your average Westerner to be all traditional and such, a closer glance reveals that they are actually purchased by different sponsors, usually companies. (the shrine is actually a popular spot for merchants to worship). This shot for example, looks really great, until you realise it is essentially shilling for Yamasaki Heavy Industries, makers of fine construction equipment the world over.
But you know, these things will only bother you if you choose to let them, and we didn’t care because we were having a grand old time scampering up the mountain with the smell of incense wafting around us and the interplay of shadows and dappled sunlight dancing across the paths in front of us. There are actually several “way stations” along the mountain and it takes quite the dedicated individual to scamper all the way up to the top – we made it about halfway before deciding to turn back and spend some time looking at the shops in the area before calling it a day – ironically a decision that set in motion the chain of events that would soon result in me being served a burned and tortured bird carcass – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Since Fushimi Inari is famous for its multitude of torii gates as previously mentioned, the shops in the area all sell various versions of wooden torii as souvenirs, ranging in size from teeny tiny ones that cost all of 500 yen (about $5USD) to massive ones that could form the entrance to miniature temple themselves for 20,000 yen ($200 USD) or more. I – who up until this point had refrained from buying any souveniers – decided that I wanted to get one. I don’t know why, exactly – I guess I envisioned it as the perfect backdrop to the sizable collection of miniature action figures, panda figurines and Legos that I have amassed over the past 6 years on the shelves in my bedroom. Plus you know, it would be nice to have a souvenir of my road trip, and here it was, day 3 and I still had nothing. Anyway, as I was sizing up two different miniature torii that had caught my eye, Starbucks girl wanders over.
“Wow. Look at this stuff. I can’t believe they actually sell these things! Who would buy junk like this?” she exclaims, casting a dismissive eye at the swath of (admittedly chintzy) trinkets and torii gates laid out before us.
“…uhh, yeah, right! Like, for real!” I hastily proffer as I attempt to deftly hide the two torii souvenirs I was holding. Of course at this point, the old woman who behind the register wanders back over.
“…so, have you made up your mind young man?” she inquires, whilst smiling politely at Starbucks girl in that way that Japanese shop keepers invariably do when they encounter a foreigner with a Japanese friend in tow. (I can’t explain it, but I always feel like when I was in elementary school and we’d go on a field trip with chaperons, and then you’d be in a museum or something and the curator would come over, and they would technically be talking to you but in reality they were making knowing eye contact with the adult chaperon accompanying you, I dunno, like they were really addressing them, or something. Do you know what I mean? Anyway, I digress.)
“Uhhh… uhh… not umm, yet. I’m still uhh, thinking.” I hastily attempt to cover, practically shooing the old woman away. It’s to no avail, however, because as soon as the old lady is out of ear shot, Starbucks girl swivels and shoots me an accusatory glare.
“Oh my god you weren’t seriously thinking about buying one of those, were you!?”
“Ummm… uhh… ahhh.. .ummm…. no…?” I stammer out my as plaintively as possible, but she sees through my bald face lie as clearly as air.
“Oh my god Panda. Six plus years in this country and you’re still such a tourist.” she laughs.
Sigh. I suppose it’s true though… no matter how long one stays here, I guess one will still occasionally have those “fresh off the boat” moments from time to time. Although, chastened by her accusation, I put down the torii gates and slink out of the shop with a red face, leaving a disappointed and very confused old woman who just seconds ago was certain she had a definite sale to a gaijin. Sorry.
After the Torii Gate incident, we wander around a little while longer when we spot a shop selling Uzura yaki (“grilled quail”). Now there is something you might not know about me, lovely readers, and that is that I love all sorts of “gamey” foods. Deer, quail, turkey, boar, rabbit, duck, lamb, etc. (not sure if “lamb” counts as gamey but whatever). And it’s been a long, long time since I’ve had some quail, and here it was, looking all delicious on a skewer in front of this shop with this charcoal grill action going on… mmm mmm..! Plus apparently the area around Fushimi Inari is “famous” for grilled quail on a stick (or so said our guide book), so we were like “let’s having some” and ducked inside.
Now the thing is, the sign outside clearly read “Uzura Yaki” and in front of it, it displayed something that looked very much like yakitori (grilled chunks of chicken on a skewer roasted over an open flame). This, gentle readers, is what yakitori looks like:
(I didn’t take this picture. Original is here.
(Used under Creative Commons Non-commercial License.)
Looks delicious, does it not? Unfortunately, my friends, that is not what I was about to put in my mouth. But we didn’t know that, so innocently, we walk into the store.
“What would you like?” asks the old lady running the shop.
“Well… could we have a couple of inari sushi and a stick of uzura yaki, please?” I reply.
“Is the uzura yaki delicious?” chimes in Starbucks girl, somewhat taken aback by the 950 yen (~$9.50 USD) price.
“Oh yes, it’s very, very good.” the old lady replies smoothly, somewhat placating our fears. She shuffles off to fill our order and we sit down and sip some tea as the delicious sounds of meat roasting over an open fire out front waft towards our ears.
After a few minutes, the old lady shuffles back bearing a plate. As she draws near she gestures with a slight flourish and sets the plates down in front of us. The first plate contained your run-of-the-mill inari sushi. The second plate…
I have to apologise at this point to all my loyal readers because somehow I did not remember to take a picture of the disaster placed before me. I think I was so shocked and taken aback by how disgusting it looked that I completely forgot (and soon I was coughing up broken beak shards and then my mind was preoccupied by other things all together). I have been kicking myself the entire time I’ve been writing this entry for forgetting to take a damn picture of the thing, and I scoured teh googals up and down to see if I could find one that would do the charred demon chunk justice, but came up empty handed (presumably every other photographer out there who ever had the misfortune of ordering an uzura yaki ended up much the same way I did, catatonic and stunned into paralysis. But if you ever go to the Fushimi Inari area, order an uzura yaki skewer and you will see what I mean. But for now, I shall just have to attempt to describe the horror feast in words.
Imagine, if you will ladies and gentlemen, a small song bird. Picture it as slightly larger than a sparrow, but not quite as big as a pigeon. Say, about the size of a large robin, but with the body shape of a baby chick. Now, imagine you take this cute, chirping creature of nature in your right hand. Watch it as it looks at you inquisitively, turning its head ever so slightly, perhaps with an expectation that you are about to give it a worm, or other tasty bird treat. Now, imagine that – as the melodic cascades of its joyous song fill your ears, you slowly begin to tighten your hand, squeezing the life out of it as its song suddenly falters and chokes off. Now, is it dead? Are you sure? Give it another crushing squeeze just to make sure. Imagine you then take your other hand and start ripping all the feathers off of its tiny, limp lifeless body in ragged chunks. It doesn’t matter if you get them all or not, the little ones will burn off in the fire.
Now you’ve got this broken little featherless birdie laying in a pink motionless lump in your hand. The next step? Take a long wooden skewer. Now shove the bird corpse onto the skewer, butt first. You can’t just simply impale it though, you need to twist the wings over its head so they get skewered up too. Try to make it look as agonizingly contorted of a pose as (in)humanely possible. Speaking of the head, give it about a three-quarters twist – you know, just so the neck looks horribly, retch-inducingly wrung, with the beak and lifeless eyes pointed straight up at the merciless heavens. Then, shove the skewer through the neck and the head to freeze them in their quiet scream for all eternity.
Are you feeling like a bad person yet? No time to listen to your conscience, for its now time to roast our little bird pole. Hopefully you have a nice hot, roaring fire going. Take your impaled, twisted tortured bird and just plunk it on the fire. You want to get it hot and charred. Watch the skin blacken, bubble and crisp-ify, as the tiny remaining feathers instantly transform into carbon impressions of their former selves. Rotate it over so you cook it on both sides, watch as the eyes glaze over and become dull, broiled and blackened orbs sunken into charred sockets. You’ll want to leave it on the fire until you’re fairly certain all the meat and internal organs have cooked through, probably no more than 4 or 5 minutes – there’s not a lot to cook, you know. Once you’re satisfied with the horror you have perpetrated, take it off the fire, and walk the horrid, charred, twisted agonized corpse impaled on a blackened skewer over to a table where the unsuspecting gaijin and his friend are sitting. Drop it in front of the with a smile that does nothing to cover the black evil in your heart and in your best old-woman dialect say…
“…and here you are! Enjoy!”
Both Starbucks girl and I were stunned for a few seconds as our brains raced to decipher the charred, impaled corpse in front of us… trying to reconcile it with our image of what uzura yaki should look like, like delicious yakitori chunks of chicken on a skewer… not…. not this, this horrible crime against bird-anity, this shockingly visceral attack on the senses and the moral fiber of human nature itself. I have always been a proud meat eater, but staring at the broken, tortured lifeless corpse of the innocent baby bird with a stick stuck up its butt, ostensibly for my eating pleasure, I was stuck by a horrible pang of guilt, a ferocious desire to drop to my knees that very moment and repent for all the animals that had died in my name before, a need – nay, a divine mandate to call PETA up at that very moment and beg their forgiveness, to pledge the (admittedly meager) contents of my savings account to their coffers and their cause…
Finally, after what seemed to be a silence that stretched into eternity (during which everyone at the table began to fidget uncomfortably, the old woman most of all, as we stared collectively at the lump of bird-shaped charcoal before us), Starbucks girl managed to compose herself enough to speak first.
“So uh…. can you, umm… eat … errr.. what parts of it are you supposed to eat?”
The old lady, immediately seizing upon a way out, leapt to her feet.
“Oh you can eat all of it!”
“All of it?” we repeated in dubious unison.
“Yes, all of it!” she replied, then scurried away back to the front.
Okay people. I’m going to level with you. Do you remember earlier in this post when I was telling you how, when people claim you can “walk somewhere” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “within walking distance”? Well, it turns out that when bird murdering old women in Kyoto try and tell you that you “can eat all of” something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that something is in fact “edible”. I mean, you would have thought I’d have learned my lesson (but as we’ve already established I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed), but of course I did not. I mean, technically you can eat all of anything – there’s dudes in the Guinness Book of World Records who have eaten entire automobiles and stuff. You can even eat poop if you wanted to. But does that mean that automobiles and poop should be classified as “edible”? No, people, it does not. And to this list of inedible objects, I would like to nominate twisted tortured bird carcasses with poles shoved up their ass. Because my friends, Kentucky Fried Chicken it was not.
We debated for a few minutes as to what to do with the carcass in front of us. The obvious choice would have been to throw it away, but that seemed so wasteful because not only was it expensive, as previously noted, but also, the poor bird was already dead, having given its piteously short life just so unsuspecting tourists in Kyoto might have something to snack upon. So really, it would have made it all the more tragic if we didn’t even make an attempt to eat it. Plus, if there is one idea that I have tried to keep over the past few years is that it’s worth trying anything (food wise) once. I mean, isn’t that part of the reason we go abroad? To see exciting and interesting places and eat their foods? (err…) I mean, if we never ventured out of our comfort zones, then we would miss tons of delicious foods out in this world.
As immediately became evident to me, however, as I took my first (and only) bite of charred flesh, impaled bird corpse on stick is somewhat permanently outside of my particular comfort zone. See, the old lady lied – you most definitely could not eat the entire thing, as there were bones, internal organs, beaks, eyeballs and all sorts of other regularly-classed-as-inedible things on that stick. I didn’t find that out, however until my teeth had sunk about halfway through the corpse, the sickening sound of bones crunching under my incisors, and the disgusting sound of internal bird organs smushing and exploding out into a goopy mess on my tongue, my lips curling back in horror as the beak splintered in my mouth, the talons scraping across my cheek.
I was halfway in and it was make-it-or-break-it time. I could either keep going and attempt to swallow the horrors in my mouth, force it down my gullet and hope I didn’t throw up all over the table, or else I could perform the worst possible violation of table manners, and spit my food out back on the plate. My mind froze as I struggled with the confusing feelings of moral confusion, guilt, horror and physical nausea slamming over me like tidal waves. Finally, after a seeming eternity, I managed to catch look of the frozen, shock visage of Starbucks girl sitting across the table from me with her hands folded over her mouth in horror, and I was galvanized into action. With a perfunctory “PTTTAAAHHHH” I spit the half chewed crush of feathers, skin, bones and beak shards onto the plate, where it landed with a disgusting, disturbing thud. We stared in mutual disgust for a second before, without a word, Starbucks girl reached across the table to grab a napkin, laying it carefully over the mauled, tormented corpse.
“We will,” she carefully intoned, “never speak of this moment again.”
“Agreed.” I replied, before gagging as I coughed up a tiny shard of beak that had made it to the back of my throat.
And with that, we stood up without another word, put on our shoes, paid the lady – who looked as if she was going to ask us how it was, before perhaps thinking better of it – and hurried out of the store to the brilliant, cleansing light of the Autumn sun pouring down from the heavens, turning our bright red faces skyward as if to purify our guilt at having attempted to eat a murdered little birdie, walking down the road down, down and away from this place that we would forever shut from our minds.
In a way, the entire experience made me think of what it must be like to eat an Ortolan, which only further confirms my suspicions that the French are very, very bizarre people. Then again, I’m no Francois Mitterrand, so what do I know? But I will tell you this gentle readers – if a Japanese person ever asks you if you want a stick of fried quail, in the immortal words of McGruff, the Crime Dog – JUST SAY NO!
(Incidentally, while I couldn’t find a video of uzura yaki on youtube, I did find a video of Jeremy Clarkson eating an Ortolan in France, which is somewhat similar, although these people seemed to enjoy it a lot more than we did. Notice the napkins draped over everyone’s heads about halfway through the video.)
The rest of our day in Kyoto was fairly uneventful. We wandered around a bit more, bought a few souvenirs (I bought a cheesy Kyoto toothbrush when Starbucks Girl wasn’t looking, because goddammit, I wanted a stupid touristy trinket and I needed a toothbrush anyway ), had a nice, non-murderous dinner, and the went to sleep early, because the next day, we would be leaving Kyoto and heading for the next leg of our great Western Japan Autumn Road Trip.
And for that, my friends, I need you to stay tuned.
Now listening to: “Coldplay (featuring Jay-Z) – Lost+”